Pokémon Stop or Pokémon Go?
Does Pokémon Go deserve a place in our cultural institutions? The stops and gyms are already there and some institutions have already incorporated the game into their programs so it seems like a good time to pose the question.
The new Pokémon Go game is based on the Pokémon Game Boy games that were originally released in 1996 and were followed by playing cards, movies, a variety of media productions, and even a theme park. Played on a smartphone, the new Pokémon Go app can be downloaded at no cost but contains in-app purchases. The game mixes real world images with images that are internal to the game. When a player views the phone screen while playing, cartoon-like Pokémon appear in the real-life landscape. The objective is to capture all of the monsters, train them in gyms and achieve higher and higher levels of proficiency as a trainer. As the slogan goes, “Gotta catch ‘em all!”
According to one source, the game draws from databases of public and historical sites in creating stops and gyms, although the company currently accepts requests to add or delete locations. At present the game can be played throughout many parts of the globe, including North America, Europe, Asia, and Oceania.
So where can you catch Pokémon? Pretty much everywhere. Friends visiting from Sydney last week said that they saw a horde of people milling about in front of the Opera House playing the game. They told me this at a well-known scenic overlook in Rochester’s Highland Park where—you guessed it—more people than I had ever seen at that location were playing the game.
Pokémon are in museums across the country and internationally, and Twitter is full of pictures of Pokémon among the works of art (a Tweet from the Smithsonian’s Hirshhorn Museum about halfway down is particularly mischievous; warning: nudity!).
Libraries have climbed on the bandwagon; for example, see Florida International University’s libguide. The New York Public Library has created Twitter and Instagram tags for images of Pokémon and a branch in the Bronx has hidden Pokémon cutouts (IRL) in its children’s section.
The zoo in Bristol, England, has already sponsored two special after-hours sessions just for Pokémon Go players. The Los Angeles Zoo recently offered discounted rates after 2pm and free lures every hour on the hour until 4pm. The zoo in El Paso, Texas, is selling tickets for Pokémon Go sleepovers. You can enjoy Pokémon Go at the Dallas Zoo and the Lincoln Park Zoo in Chicago welcomes Pokémon Go players while warning them that some stops, which they want removed, are within exhibit areas and should be considered off limits.
I recently walked through Seneca Park Zoo with a friend and learned that there are five stops and two gyms. We saw many people playing Pokémon Go there; they mainly seemed to be young adults or parents who were there with their kids. According to Taykey, an analytics company, “25-34 year-olds have emerged as the predominant age group” playing the game. Here is some speculation: while some tweens and teens may be playing, it could be the people who played with the original Pokémon Game Boy and card games who are the biggest fans. Younger people may not have fancy enough phones or big enough data plans. I have also heard from parents that their children are skeptical of games with in-app purchases and there is some fear about the game leading them into dangerous places.
But people are playing; we see them everywhere. And if cultural institutions want to use Pokémon Go to increase their gate counts or make a little extra revenue, they may be onto something, at least for the moment. However, if the intent is to help visitors learn more about the art or the music or the animals, there may be better ways, possibly even by using the augmented reality technology that makes Pokémon Go work. The same technology could enable a visitor to a cultural institution to see information about something in the collection—an animal, for example—at the same time the viewer sees the thing itself. Perhaps head-up display technology combined with a phone’s camera app could let us see information about the animal around the edges of the screen as we view the animal in the center. Or conversely, we might be able to add virtual animals to real-life environments so that we can “see” nocturnal animals in the day or “watch” endangered animals without posing further dangers to them.
As in other cases, the technology is fun to play with and may have great applications. Fiddle around and learn what it can do. Put it on your technology shelf. And then know your community and work with them to understand their needs. Do their needs connect with the purpose, resources, and abilities of the cultural institution? If so, get that great technology from the shelf and put it to work. And into play!